There’s a movement to turn Hong Kong back into a British colony

A campaigner carries a former colonial Hong Kong flag during a Hong Kong-UK reunification demonstration outside the British Consulate in Hong Kong on July 1, 2016, the 19th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to Chinese sovereignty from British rule.

China’s rulers already revile Hong Kong’s independent streak. Many see the island territory as a feisty place corrupted by Western political thought, a legacy of its time under British rule.

Now along comes a campaign to vindicate the Communist Party’s worst suspicions.

This movement’s adherents aren’t clamoring for freer elections. Nor are they demanding outright independence.

They want to transform Hong Kong back into a British territory — and proclaim Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state.

“Many Hong Kongers love Her Majesty very much!,” says Alice Lai, the leading face of the campaign. “Even now, we still call Her Majesty ‘The Boss.’”

Even in Hong Kong’s more rebellious circles, this idea will sound far-fetched. The city’s pro-democracy camps are mostly fixated on less radical goals, such as loosening Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong’s leadership.

But the Hong Kong-United Kingdom Reunification Campaign, while extremely small, is quite serious.

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Lai, a graphic designer in her 30s, tried to advance the cause by running for office in Hong Kong’s upcoming Sept. 4 elections.

She was swiftly banned.

So were five other would-be candidates accused of agitating for Hong Kong’s independence — a cause that, according to Beijing, is fueled by a “Western world … seeking to plunge Hong Kong society into disorder.” (A conspiratorial Chinese government-produced video recently warned that, within these separatist campaigns, “we can often catch a glimpse of the dark shadow of the Stars and Stripes.”)

Wishing for an independent Hong Kong isn’t so rare. A recent poll shows that one in six Hong Kongers shares that unlikely dream.  

But among the banned candidates, only Lai envisions Hong Kong retreating into the arms of the UK, which controlled the island territory for more than 150 years.

A campaigner for Hong Kong-UK reunification counts donations on July 1, 2016 — the day marking the 19th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to Chinese sovereignty from British rule.
A campaigner for Hong Kong-UK reunification counts donations on July 1, 2016 — the day marking the 19th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to Chinese sovereignty from British rule. Bobby Yip/Reuters

Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 with some major caveats. Both sides agreed that Hong Kong would enjoy a “high degree of autonomy,” including a legal system with some basis in British common law.

But in recent years, Communist Party stalwarts, aided by their loyalists in Hong Kong, have been tightening their controls on the affluent territory.

Beijing insists on vetting Hong Kong’s candidates lest a separatist take power. Chinese agents have even crossed borders to snatch up critics. Many Hong Kongers, who speak Cantonese, fear their native tongue will be snuffed out by mandatory Mandarin lessons in public schools.

Reunification campaigners claim Beijing’s meddling is now so severe that it has actually voided the terms of the British handover.

In Lai’s dream scenario, these grievances will compel the UK to reassert its ownership of Hong Kong — a move that would nuke relations with China, a key trading partner, and baffle heads of state around the world.

Nevertheless, the campaigners are hopeful. Here, Lai explains the movement’s ideology, its next steps and her fondness for the British Empire. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

PW: Your group has said that China is carrying out an "inhumane occupation" of Hong Kong. What does that mean?

AL: It means that transferring Hong Kong from the UK to China is a violation of human rights. It’s a transfer from a democratic country to an authoritarian, totalitarian country. It’s totally unlawful, this Chinese occupation.

You've also said Hong Kong culture, society and education are all under threat from China.

Yes, it’s true. Hong Kong is a more civilized place than China. Hong Kong has always had lots of British values. We have law and order, the English language, some common cultural values and regulations. All of this forms the basis of a civilized place. For example, we throw our rubbish in the bin.

But now Hong Kong is deteriorating.

Your supporters like drinking high tea and eating cupcakes that look like the UK flag.

Yes, we drink tea [at events on the street] and educate Hong Kongers about the Magna Carta. You’ll also see that our breakfasts are similar to the British breakfast. We eat eggs, tea and sausage.

I realize you don't want to be controlled by China's Communist Party. But wouldn't it be strange if Hong Kong's head of state was a far-away caucasian woman in England — the queen?

Many Hong Kongers really love Her Majesty very, very much! We still call her “The Boss.” She loves her people and she was very good to us.

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Your chances of success are very, very low. Are you serious about winning? Or is this just a way to protest against China?

It’s just the beginning. We’re now trying different methods of advising Hong Kongers on this issue. That’s what is most important: showing them they have the right of self-determination.

How would you convince British diplomats to ruin their relationship with China by attempting to reclaim Hong Kong?

The former British foreign secretary has already declared that China breached the joint declaration. We’ll also get more Hong Kongers to sign an online petition … so that we can force the UK to do more.

We can just hope that China will act like an adult. In the South China Sea — er, the Philippine Sea — they say they own the whole place. We cannot let China do anything it wants. They’re a brutal, authoritarian country. Next they may say they own the world.

Brexit showed that a lot of British people want to become less entangled with the outside world. How would you convince the average English person that they need Hong Kong back in the UK?

I’d tell them that Hong Kong passed from the UK’s hands without our consent. And that we really love the UK. Also, Hong Kong is one of the best international finance cities. If we reunite, that would be good for the UK.

You say the Chinese government is very oppressive. But the British Empire could be oppressive and also quite racist. A long time ago, Chinese in Hong Kong weren't allowed in public after dark. Does that cause you to think twice about celebrating Hong Kong's colonial history?

That was a historical time, back in the very beginning. Once Hong Kong became a colony, many people moved here and it was just a better place to live.

Why not just try to make Hong Kong totally independent?

It’s better to reunite. Hong Kong under the UK had a well-functioning system. We still have tangible legal and political ties.

Going independent, on the other hand, is stepping into confusion and uncertainty.

Which is better: British food or Cantonese food?

I like to think our cuisine is a mix of British and Hong Kong styles.

Surely, you know Cantonese food is better, right?

Well, I like my milk tea very much.

How do you want people to vote in September?

I’ll start a (pro-reunification) petition in early September and send it to the election committee.

I still want to take part in legislative elections. That’s a formal way to gain the confidence of Hong Kongers. And joining the legislative council would be a good way to talk to the UK about our situation.

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